No tennis player since Billie Jean King at the 1973 Battle of the Sexes went into a tennis event with more pressure on them than Novak Djokovic, as he played this year’s US Open. With a 21st Slam, he could put his rivals Roger and Rafa in the rear view mirror, achieve what no man had done in 52 years, notch the calendar Grand Slam and put a lid on the GOAT debate – at least for a while.
History was at stake.
But by the final, the many marathon matches he’d endured and the pressure of it all had left Nole drained. On Sunday he was pummeled by Daniil Medvedev.
But the warrior won. It wasn’t because throughout the tourney he gave us a master class on how to deal with the kind of big-time pressure that most of us can only imagine. He began with, “Pressure is a privilege,” spoke about the calming power of breath and staying in the moment, and how “It’s all about ourselves, and the inner battle.”
Women’s champion Emma Raducanu scored an astonishing turnaround. She had abandoned Wimbledon after having a panic attack on Court 1, drawing harsh media scorn. Then, just nine weeks later, she departed from New York as the toast of the town.
In 2020 a ball from Djokovic’s racket left an official writhing in breathless pain. Nole left the Open in shame. This year he lost again, but he left in triumph. In defeat he’d gained what he’d always really wanted, what we all really want – love. The Ashe Stadium fans had showered him with adulation. They’d finally embraced the singular passion and history-seeking grit of a man they’d long disdained.
This story, written before the Open, seeks to take a glimpse at an athletic journey like no other.
For sixteen years this athletic genius has been in the spotlight. You’d think we’d have a full measure of this man. But still we wonder – who is Novak Djokovic?
Novak is made of Serbian steel. Bash, stretch, slide, recover, sprint, battle, pivot, blast. Grit is his coin. Few others so relish the battle. He digs deep and rebounds strongly. His astounding limbs twist like a gluten-free Coney Island pretzel and he has a laser-like return of serve that Agassi or Connors would admire.
Lean, sinewy and fierce, he bends low to unleash astonishing winners, then climbs high mountains to seek clarity. He inspires, his strokes amaze, he sprints like the wind, he defends with passion. He beams, and, in triumph, kisses a golden trophy, then another adoring child. He’s a hero – yes?
The man has swept aside scores of eager but futile challengers. He launched a players’ group seeking greater equity. He compassionately advised Naomi Osaka. His astounding, deep-think insights on children, imagination and self-love reveal the wisdom of a reflective man. He’s the face of a small proud nation and, of course, he’s shattered one coveted record after another.
But then we gasp. Something else has been shattered: his reputation as a sportsman. A US Open linesperson writhes in pain, a racket in Tokyo is hurled high into the stands, another is smashed to smithereens – never mind that it’s at the greatest gathering in sports, the Olympics. Then he leaves his partner in the lurch by withdrawing from the mixed doubles bronze medal match.
While the pandemic raged, Novak stunned us by staging a tone-deaf COVID spreader. When an ATP leader became involved in a violent brawl, and tennis so needed strong leadership, Novak withered. It was left to Stan Wawrinka to issue a moving statement of conscience that addressed tennis “worrying decline in moral standards.”
But that was neither here nor there to Tokyo’s Olympians. After being blitzed off the court by Novak, Bolivian Hugo Dellien asked for the shirt off Nole’s back. He told the Serb, “I want to remember my whole life that I played you. It’s a dream for me.” Athletes patiently waited in long lines to get his autograph. A picture of him doing splits with a Belgian gymnast went viral. When Giovanna Scoccimarro, a German judoka, nabbed a selfie with Novak, she dashed off jumping for joy. Nole gave Lebanese protestors a supportive message: “I want you to know you are not alone.” He spoke to Turks on the importance of mental toughness, and, of course, encouraged the Serbian contingent. Mary Carillo joked, “I’m the only one in Tokyo without a selfie with Novak.” The compelling Serb can melt your heart with his charm.
Deep into the fourth set of the Wimbledon final, Nole retrieved a backhand slice from Matteo Berrettini. He then dashed far to the opposite corner to unleash a forehand blast, but he stumbled. In a flash he righted himself and set off on a desperate eight-step diagonal sprint and hit an incredibly deft cross-court flick winner. Broadcaster Rich Connelly gushed, “Oh, magnificent! Magnificent! Every blade of grass! If ever there was a point that tells us something about this man, this was it. Some points are worth the admission price itself.”
Soon the man from the mountains reached the summit. Djokovic won his sixth Wimbledon. Amazingly, he had prevailed at 8 of the last 12 Slams. In six weeks this summer, he did what no one else has ever done. Until this year’s French Open semifinal, the conventional wisdom was that the toughest thing to do in tennis was to beat Rafa at Roland Garros. Then Nole scored a thunderous Parisian knock-out over Nadal. Now people were saying that the hardest thing to do in tennis was to beat Novak on any surface.
After his Wimbledon win over Berrettini, Novak had at last completed his exhaustive quest to equal Roger’s and Rafa’s records of 20 Slams each. Now fans could legitimately contend that Nole was the GOAT. Once he equaled Rafa and Roger in Slam wins, his many other records came to the fore. Novak leads in his head-to-heads against both Roger (27-23) and Rafa (30-28). His overall winning percentage is the best of the big 3. His dominance at Masters tournaments dazzles: he’s won all nine of them at least twice. Nole has the most weeks at No. 1 (335), and he’s tied with Pete Sampras for finishing the most years as No. 1 (6). He’s the only player among the three to win every major at least twice and, if he wins the US Open, he’d become the first man since Rod Laver 52 years ago to win the Calendar Grand Slam. It’s said that Novak has now effectively reduced the Big Three to the Big One. Rafa has won “just” 3 of the last 12 Slams, and, in that time, Roger has only reached one final. Since he turned 30, Nole has collected eight Slams.
So what’s at the core of Novak’s greatness? Off-court he’s an insistent seeker, a kind of mystic in training, with myriad interests, from diet to meditation to early education. He’s beloved in Serbia and, who knows, could become their president. He has a mission-based (where’s my hyperbaric oxygen tank?) professionalism that rarely wavers. He wants to be the best ever. And he delivers a delicious menu of skill-sets. With laser intent, uncanny court management and a panther’s guile, he hits angled winners and finds open spaces. He prowls but is balanced. He howls loud but is patient. He stays in the moment, he studies his foes, his mid-match adjustments have uncanny precision. He’s a surgeon.
Nole says his success is a combination of fitness and flexibility, experience and self belief. He likes to quote Michael Jordan’s mantra: “I failed, I failed, I failed, and that’s why I succeeded in the end.” Plus, he’s clutch. More than anyone since Bjorn Borg, he wins deciding sets. Just ask Roger, Rafa, Tsitsipas or Berrettini. Chris McKendry called him “the chosen one.” So he should be universally loved – right? But not so fast.
An ESPN producer actually had the temerity to ask Nole, “What has it been like to be something of ‘the bad guy’ chasing after Roger and Rafa all these years?” Ouch!
Yet clearly, the man who still struggles to emerge out of the shadow of two vastly charismatic heartthrobs hopes for the public’s love. Who wouldn’t? But, in the arena, often the cries of “Nole, Nole, Nole!” come from a minority of enthusiasts high in the bleachers. The vast majority roar loud in a kind of maddening unison for that Swiss magician with his balletic ease or that Spanish conquistador with all his disarming dimples and muscular magnetism.
As in high school, so in life: popularity has its impact. And when it comes to the character of our sports heroes, we generally prefer grace, beauty, muscles, charm and sex appeal over superb craftsmanship, racket-chucking anger and unbridled fury.
There are times that Novak just doesn’t get that he’s No. 1 and our sport’s leader who needs to step up. Too often he has torpedoed his chances of gaining mass affection. He said he’d learn from his New York debacle. But just eleven months after being booted out of the US Open, he was hardly cautious or keenly aware. In Tokyo his actions were less than Olympian. Rafa wondered why would such a great champion, with so many children watching, lose it so badly. Once again, Nole just didn’t get it. Far from being accountable, he tamely explained, “We’re all human beings. Sometimes it’s difficult to control your emotions.”
But we wonder – where are his tough-love advisors? Has he been too insulated? Why does he seem to have so little self-awareness, so little big-picture perspective? Has his fame, in some way, misled him?
Nole hardly tries to hide his white-hot ferocity. His veins swell, his turbulence is clear, his rage boils. His fasten-your-seatbelt passion brings to mind Jimmy Connors, Lleyton Hewitt and, of course, John McEnroe.
Nole’s Serbian friend Janko Tipsarevic knows well that as a boy, Djokovic was forged by a brutal war – bombs fell, knives cut deep, 100,000 died. Such traumas shape a life – rarely do they vanish.
Novak is driven. Tipsarevic explained: “He wants to be the best of all time and nothing else, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes…Nothing else satisfies his hunger. You saw this with LeBron, Kobe, Ronaldo and Muhammed Ali.”
Novak is clear. “I consider myself best and I believe that I am the best,” he confides. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be talking confidently about winning Slams and making history.”
Mystical and sublime, caring then careless, refined then unaware, this man is on a mission. Yes, he seems prone to self-sabotage. Nole can be Novak’s worst enemy. Going into the US Open final we were riveted as this compelling but perplexing athletic genius went for big history in the Big Apple, knowing that he’s said to be the greatest player to ever pick up a racket, and also a man who cannot avoid controversy.
In the end he failed to write history he sought, but he gained the heart of the throng. And, in the end, doesn’t that matter more?